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Much Ado About Nothing, Noël Coward Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Much Ado About Nothing, Noël Coward Theatre

Much Ado About Nothing, Noël Coward Theatre

Shakespeare's comedy gets an exuberant, thought-provoking Bollywood makeover

Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee as Beatrice and Benedick in 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Never quite at the top of the Shakespearean canon, Much Ado About Nothing now seems more vital and adaptable than ever – and vastly darker than, say, Kenneth Branagh’s sun-kissed screen romp acknowledged back in 1993. The cult director Joss Whedon unveiled his low-budget, film noir version earlier this month at the Toronto Film Festival to rave reviews.

Meanwhile Iqbal Khan’s new stage production set in contemporary Delhi underlines the sexual anxiety coursing through the play beneath the frothy surface: the obsessive references to cuckoldry, the fear of female infidelity and the fine line between a combative but, withal, merry war of the sexes and a bitter battle of attrition fought until death.

The pace moves along at a fair lick, with plenty of physical comic business

Reports filtered back from the premiere last month at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon that this show was over-long and under-rehearsed. Transferred to the West End, it still runs a luxuriant three hours, but then that’s the bumper Bollywood tradition, and Indian cinema audiences would consider themselves short-changed at a movie that clocked in shorter.

Despite the length, it’s well worth arriving early. Then you have time to take in Tom Piper’s extravagant set, an Indian courtyard festooned with great swags of luminous fabrics and arranged around a huge tree sprouting an inflammable tangle of electric cables. In the background, a cacophonous Indian street: whistles, hawkers, dogs and non-stop car horns. The cast amble on casually one by one to have a smoke, sweep the yard or banter with the audience. Dogberry, a burly Sikh, steps forward to make a pre-play “denouncement” about switching off mobile phones.

So it’s not a glum evening over at the Noël Coward Theatre. The pace moves along at a fair lick, with plenty of physical comic business, some bits smarter (or sillier) than others. Dogberry’s rag-tag police corps seems to have been recruited from the kitchen staff, armed with egg whisks, spray cleaners and frying pans; a large swing in the garden proves a versatile prop; and an earlier peeing joke at Stratford appears, mercifully, to have hit the cutting-room floor. The energetic musical interludes don’t come across in any way as padding: the super score, which features two contrasting settings of "Sigh No More", is by Niraj Chag.

Meera Syal is the star attraction, as an older than usual Beatrice. To my mind, this feisty woman tilting at the patriarchal status quo didn’t quite command the evening as she might, though that may be down to the strong British-Asian cast surrounding her. To single out a handful, Paul Bhattacharjee’s equally mature, silver-haired Benedick is posturing, a tad pompous but also at times endearingly goofy, Amara Karan plays Hero (pictured above, left) as sweet and unusually spirited and Sagar Ayra manages to bring nuances to the ambiguous character of Claudio: clean-cut, athletic, funny and a consummate jerk. Some PC types have griped that this is not an authentic reflection of modern India (as though Shakespeare’s original vision of Sicily were any more accurate). But it’s both thought-provoking and, undeniably, fun.

Watch a short video about this production of Much Ado About Nothing

Set in contemporary Delhi, it underlines the sexual anxiety coursing through the play beneath the frothy surface


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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